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  • Writer's pictureD Lane

Saved again?

The City Council has formally terminated the “Corridors” planning process because many residents are concerned that it could have damaged our community in a variety of ways (more traffic, too many cars in quiet single family home neighborhoods, loss of local business, luxury housing coming in, water shortages, etc.)

Even with all that “saving” one question remains for me: have poor people and relatively lower-paid workers been saved?

I think not.

Here’s how this typically goes:

-On the one hand, homeowners want to protect their single family home neighborhoods. (Quite sensible.)

-On the other hand, renters and people with low or very low income want more places to rent. Younger people working here want a decent chance to find a place to live that does not require a one hour commute each way.

In this context, normal political decision-making proceeds...

And the protective homeowners’ position prevails nearly every time.

This is a phenomenon that occurs throughout California but it is especially strong here. It’s pretty simple to see how this works. In elections and in political mobilizing, homeowners vote more, have more resources and have more time to devote to this struggle. Even when the formal decision-making body votes to approve something over the objection of the homeowners, the homeowners go to court or go to some higher authority (the Coastal Commission, for instance) and block things there. The homeowners don’t even have to “win” at these secondary venues... delay is the name of the game and many builders simply give up rather than spend lots of money on legal battles with uncertain outcomes.

But wait, you say, how come some stuff that homeowners don’t like still gets built? The short answer is that state law has required for many years that each city zone a certain amount of land for each level of housing. So the city does basically the bare minimum in terms of zoning and some builders navigate through a fairly rigorous and lengthy process and build in those state-mandated zones. Even in these instances, the homeowners exercise a decent amount of sway, getting the amount of square footage reduced, the height reduced, the neighborhood traffic and parking protections increased. The demands of these homeowners either gain some kind of protection measures for the homeowners or they stop the project... again, because the cost of these additional conditions scares off many builders.

If you doubt that this is really how the game works, please consider that our population grew by 3000 people between 2010 and 2016 but we only allowed about 500 housing units to be built. If we were really meeting the needs of non-homeowner residents and local workers, we would have allowed more rental housing to be built. By the way, this was a period that some Save Santa Cruz leaders described Santa Cruz as a time of “overbuilding.”

I can hear some of you saying: “But wait, Don, you’re being really unfair to these homeowners. Almost all of them say they want more affordable housing built. They really want lower income local workers to be able to live here, too.”

I genuinely believe that these folks do want more affordable housing. But they always seem to find a way to keep it from happening.

In “for-profit” housing projects they say they are not satisfied with how much affordable housing is included in those projects. So they fight them. (But they do NOT say how it would be financially feasible to build all the affordable housing they say they’d embrace... and thereby they ensure that very little is built.)

Or, in 100 percent affordable non-profit projects, it’s almost always "too dense" or "too tall" or "too close" and so the homeowner neighbors say it has to be changed. So the project is made smaller—and fewer lower income people get housed. Or no one gets housed because the project becomes financially infeasible once it is downsized.

And, repeating myself, homeowner neighborhood fears of rental housing for working class and poorer families limit the number of viable sites for affordable housing.

How do we change this situation so we actually have a balance between neighborhood homeowner concerns and the need for rental housing for local workers and young people?

We start by saying: stop the excuses for not building rental housing. And we put our heads together and identify the right sites in EVERY PART OF TOWN for rental housing that can be feasibly built within financial realities.

Here’s what we probably shouldn’t do... even as we re-visit the concept of zoning sites along the busier streets of Santa for housing:

We should not give homeowner neighborhoods a higher priority than the lower income people of our community. And yet our “ultra progressive” city council majority did just that.

Take a look at the language of the motion they just adopted in terminating the old corridors planning process:

"Direct planning staff to initiate a project to resolve existing inconsistencies between the Corridor-related General Plan policies and the Zoning Ordinance by making General Plan and Zoning Ordinance changes as necessary to meet the following objectives: a) Preserve and protect residential neighborhood areas and existing city businesses, as the City’s highest level policy priority; and b) encourage appropriate new residential and mixed-use development, specifically including enhanced affordable housing opportunities, at appropriate locations along the City’s main transportation corridors."

Please note that residential neighborhoods are the “highest level priority” and new residential development including affordable housing is simply “encouraged.” If they think that is “progressive” policy they are sadly mistaken. This is textbook defense of privilege.

And to make matters even worse, they did this in their council action:

“Direct the Planning Director, as a first step in carrying out the Council’s direction on this matter to meet promptly with representatives of Save Santa Cruz and other groups that have previously commented on the now-terminated Corridors plan to seek agreement on possible changes to the General Plan that can achieve broad community support and that will allow the council to achieve its objectives.”

Nothing wrong with having city officials meet with an active and influential local group. But there is something quite anti-progressive about favoring a group dominated by older homeowners while not thinking to name groups that primarily advocate for affordable housing and the needs of less privileged people. And to essentially set up a dynamic where it’s clear that, without Save Santa Cruz-ers on board, no progress on creating rental housing opportunities will be made. That’s right... replicating the same old dynamic where privileged homeowners have veto power over solutions that meet the needs of the less privileged.

In case you are wondering why there is so much activity in the state legislature around these housing and zoning issues, you now have your answer. The legislature is serious about addressing housing needs and are no longer letting privileged homeowners block progress on this issue. I’m glad somebody’s trying.

And one other thought... we could use a bit more honest discussion about these housing development issues.

Those opposing multi-story buildings use stupid (and clever) stunts like this: They show you the picture like the first one below and scream “ugly” as if a building under construction represents what a building we be like for its neighbors. Of course, the completed building looks pretty good (the second pic, which is the real building, not just a rendering)) and scores of local residents happily live there without causing any trouble for anyone.

And when we talk about traffic and housing, let’s not jump to the simplistic and often incorrect assumption that more housing in Santa Cruz equals more cars. The city of Santa Cruz is the job center for our county. Many thousands of people (and I’m not talking about tourists) drive from outside the city to do their place of work in the city every work day. These are the cars that are clogging up our streets and the highway. If we build rental housing for people near where they work, they drive LESS. They walk and drive and take quick bus rides instead of driving themselves. They show you the second photo below to represent their fears of more housing when the first photo is actually more realistic. (That’s right - Santa Cruz residents actually bike and walk a lot more than in most communities around the country. This is not wishful thinking.) I'm sure we've all noticed that the worst traffic problem we have is all the people living in south county having to drive to Santa Cruz jobs because there is no housing for them here. This is what preventing rental housing construction has helped bring about.

I’m all for saving Santa Cruz. But Santa Cruz is not just a collection of buildings. It has been home to a diverse collection of people from a range of economic classes and that diversity is diminishing every year. Let’s save that Santa Cruz, too.

PS- In case you missed the top of this post is a pic of the Palomar. Tallest building in Santa Cruz... a hundred years old. Somehow we survived having an eight story building in our community for a hundred years. It’s actually a real asset to the community and a home to more than 100 local residents.

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